Neymar and Brazil claim Olympic gold to revive hopes a nation can rise again
Andy Murray entered the London Olympic Games at a fairly low ebb four years ago. Earlier in the summer, he had become the first British male to make the final of Wimbledon in over 70 years, only to come up short against Roger Federer. The tears had flowed. Murray must have wondered whether the Grand Slam glory he had pursued for so long would ever arrive.
The Olympics provided a salve for his wounds. Murray breezed to the gold medal match and nonchalantly dispatched Federer. It wasn't Wimbledon (although it was staged there) and it did not make up for the previous defeat. But as Murray thanked a partisan Centre Court crowd, it was hard not to feel that a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
A month later, he won the US Open.
The comparison between Murray's watershed moment and Brazil's Olympic football breakthrough on Saturday night is an imperfect one for a number of reasons (the Scot's success was not set against a wider story of decline, for one). But when the dust settles on a dramatic night in Rio de Janeiro, those seeking to contextualise and measure Brazil's 5-4 victory over Germany in a penalty shootout (following a 1-1 stalemate) may find instructive -- and inspiring -- echoes here.
Let's get the gruff stuff out of the way early. It goes without saying that Olympic gold is not on the same plane of achievement as a World Cup or even a Copa America win. It's a bigger deal than the Confederations Cup -- which Brazil won in 2013 and celebrated with what we now know was misplaced hubris -- but that isn't saying a great deal. The wider context of sporting achievement and the attendant fanfare grant the Olympic football tournament a short-term legitimacy that tends to wane over time.
Nor is this any great revenge for the 7-1 World Cup semifinal defeat suffered at the hands of Germany in 2014. That was a demolition so complete in its conception and execution as to be written in permanent marker in Brazil's football history. Future generations will refer to "the 7-1" and shudder. It will not be erased, least of all by a scrappy win over a side whose players could not be picked out in an identity parade by most fans at the Maracana.
Still, to focus only on the negatives is to miss the point.
For Brazil, the tournament did mean more than football means to most nations at most Olympic Games. They had a host's obligation to entertain, for a start, intensified by a perceived failure to do just that two years ago at the World Cup on home soil.
The sense of duty also came from the broader sporting context. Despite its size, Brazil is not an Olympic powerhouse, so football -- both men's and women's -- represented a significant chunk of their medal hopes. The final, taking place on the penultimate day of the Games at the nation's spiritual sporting home, always looked ripe for glory. When Neymar stroked home the winning penalty, it secured a sixth gold for Brazil -- their best total ever.
Yet still there was something more at play. A fairly recent phenomenon it may be, but Brazil's obsession with winning maiden Olympic gold only grew more vigorous this summer. To outsiders, that quest seemed a little overcooked, perhaps a little arbitrary: a convenient emotional investment to deflect attention away from more pressing issues.
But objectively misguided or not, the desire was real. The heart wants what the heart wants, and Brazil really wanted to win.
That much was evident in the celebrations that followed Saturday's victory. There was no cynicism on display. The Maracana was packed and rocking; the national anthem was sung with rare swagger. Each and every player -- from teenagers like Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa to older hands like Renato Augusto and Weverton -- was smiling ear-to-ear. There was joy in the air.
It felt big, and that's really the point.
This is the kind of winning experience that Brazil have not been able to call upon for some time, given the drudgery and failure of recent performances on the world stage. Their last major success came at the 2007 Copa America. Of those on duty that summer, only Dani Alves stands a realistic chance of playing a part under Tite, Dunga's replacement as coach of the senior side. The new generation, led by Neymar, had some success at the under-20 level, but nothing on this scale.
Success breeds success, and the integration of some of Rogerio Micale's players into the senior side will now provide a serious morale boost -- and a timely one, given the Selecao's struggles in World Cup qualifying. The vein of fragility that has run through the side might at last have an expiry date.
So yes, it's only the Olympics. But Brazil have ended their wait for gold and for the first time in a decade, there is reason for pride.
There's hope, too, that better times lie ahead. It worked for Murray, and there's a chance that it will work for Brazil as well.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football and the national team for ESPN FC.